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Back at Venture Cap, I clicked on Caldwell’s and Metcalf’s names and found they led only to brief excerpts and links off the site. Neither had ever contributed a full story. Only the name “Phin Upham” linked to actual full-length writing—and it was all terrible stuff, much of it seemingly recycled from high-school term papers. I found another press release from six months earlier also announcing his appointment to Venture Cap. When I went to the street address listed for the magazine’s offices, I discovered that 64 Prince Street did not exist—or, rather, that it is a back entrance next to an Indian restaurant.

All of these pop-up websites had a few things in common. They praised Phin Upham; they listed him among other distinguished figures; and, in naming them, seriously overshot the mark. One economic site listed him with Nobel laureate Alvin Roth and another with Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Phin shared the marquee on a philosophy site with the late Stephen Jay Gould. And the site that boasted that Phin would be promoting philosophy education in developing countries claimed New Yorker editor David Remnick as an “author.”

By now I knew that I had found a vast web ecosystem built almost entirely out of bogus claims and associations. I counted 33 sites in all, most with their own logos and unique design. Someone had worked hard to create these sites, however shoddy or amateurish their content seemed, and yet they were worthless except as vehicles for Phin Upham’s reputation on the web—­perhaps worthless even in that way, since it didn’t seem possible they’d fool anybody for very long. If Phin paid for these sites, then it would appear that the manner of his contrition exactly matched the manner of his mother’s crime. She made up fake entities to hide their money, then he made up fake entities to salvage his reputation.

At this point, I was in full bloodhound mode. I downloaded the raw HTML code of each site and looked for evidence of a common author. I found it: They all used similar metadata to guide search engines: ­something like “{phin, phineas, samuel, phin upham}.” In the registration, some sites listed the same address, “123 Bay Forest Drive, New York, NY 10011,” and a ­contact name, “Xander Fields.” But the address doesn’t exist, and the phone numbers led nowhere. And I couldn’t find any Xander Fields.

But when sleuthing through the metadata, I noticed other names thrown in incongruously: Joe Ricketts, Helen Lee Schifter, Irena Briganti, Antonio Weiss, and Luke Weil. I also noticed the same Wikipedia editor, Belkin555, had tidied the entries of several of them. A few were powerful people with no apparent scandals to cover up: Joe Ricketts was the founder of TD Ameritrade, and Antonio Weiss runs investment banking for ­Lazard. Others, judging by the unforgiving kliegs of a Google search, had left much messier trails on the web.

Helen Lee Schifter, the first Google result informed me, was accused of carrying on an affair with the artist Brice Marden. One article, “Social Climber Beds Wrong ­Woman’s Famous Husband,” said Marden’s wife had approached Schifter in a West Village bistro, called her a tramp, slapped her, and received a spontaneous standing ovation from the other diners. (Schifter insists their relationship was platonic.) Irena Briganti is the vice-president of public relations for Fox News, and Gawker calls her “the most ­vindictive flack in the media world.” And then there’s Luke Weil, 33, whose father, Lorne, made a fortune in the off-track-­betting industry. In 2006, according to the Observer, Weil, who now works as a VP of his dad’s company and once sued the makers of the Born Rich documentary to force the removal of his own too-candid interview footage, assaulted a music producer with a broken liquor bottle and battered his then-girlfriend, Patrice Jordan, and was sentenced to a year in jail.

When I Googled the phone number on the press releases for Phin, I found that it also appeared on very-similar-looking press releases for Schifter, Briganti, and Weil—like Phin, they had been appointed to this-or-that editorial board, and the releases praised them for their intelligence and ­generosity. One celebrated Briganti’s work in history, and said she’d studied at Brown; in fact, she’d gone to suny-Albany, where she’d majored in communications.

Whoever he was, it seemed that “Xander Fields” had built a whole Potemkin universe of positive-press websites that amplified made-up praise, often by made-up people, for a handful of rich folks with messy online reputations. I was now deep down in a ­rabbit hole but hadn’t yet landed with a ­satisfying thud. Who was “Xander Fields”?